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Alternate Schools Show Results Too Good to Ignore

Vouchers and Charters Giving a Glimmer of Hope in Education

NEW YORK, JUNE 21, 2003 ( New York City has plunged into the long-running debate over how to reform public school education in the United States. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to break the power of entrenched bureaucrats by enlisting former business executives to run the system along the lines of modern management principles, Business Week reported in its June 9 issue.

The scale of the task facing reformers is evident from the fact that only 16% of the students who entered high school in 1998 went on to pass the tests necessary to win a Regents diploma, the degree representing basic competency in core subjects such as math, reading and history. Business Week said the problems extend across the country, with many public schools failing, just as states and cities are facing worsening budget squeezes.

One solution long proposed is the introduction of school vouchers. A recent study involving New York students supported the thesis that vouchers can provide better education for needy students, the New York Times reported June 13.

Two Harvard University professors, Paul Peterson and William Howell, carried out a study of the 1,300 New York students who transferred from public to private schools using a system akin to vouchers. Research showed that black students who entered private schools scored significantly higher than their public school peers on standardized tests. "The most significant finding in the data is that vouchers have a positive effect for African-Americans," Peterson said at a news conference.

The New York Times noted that not all agree over the interpretation of the data, and there are disputes over some methodological questions. Nevertheless, Peterson said that his conclusions had confirmed what other academics had written previously. He also observed: "It does appear that Catholic schools generate higher test scores for African-Americans."

Plans to introduce vouchers in several states are moving ahead. The Colorado Legislature passed a bill allowing certain low-income students to use public money to enroll in private or parochial schools, the Wall Street Journal reported April 7. Eligible are those students who live in large, poorly performing school districts. Approval for the bill came after Colorado voters defeated two voucher-related referendums during the 1990s.

In Florida, the state House recently passed a bill that would give the children of military veterans and active-duty personnel vouchers to pay for private school. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are now 11,000 students enrolled in voucher programs in Milwaukee, 5,000 in Cleveland and 650 in Florida. The Colorado bill should add another 17,500 to these numbers by 2007.

"I have never seen as much legislative activity as I've seen this year," said Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group that helped defend Cleveland's voucher program before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Long waiting list

Another reform proposal that is increasingly popular are charter schools. To overcome what some see as an overly rigid public school system, charter schools receive state funds but operate with varying degrees of autonomy from local school districts and rules.

Last Nov. 18 the Washington Times reported that enrollment in Washington, D.C., charter schools reached 11,500 in 2002, spread among 38 schools. Another 1,000 students are on the waiting list. This compares with 67,522 students enrolled in public schools.

Despite its appeal, the charter school movement is having problems. The movement extends to about 2,700 schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia, and educates 600,000 students, the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 21.

But the number of new charter schools is down, and financial difficulties at a number of institutions have led to stricter regulation. Texas is seeking $5.7 million back from 19 closed charter schools accused of overcharging the state. And a new California law bars operators from opening campuses outside the county or school district that granted their charter.

Yet, many parents continue to be enthusiastic, the Journal noted. According to one estimate the waiting lists at existing charters could fill 900 additional schools.

A New York Times article of March 5 was more critical of charter schools. The article said that in Arizona, which has 457 charters, 36% of them have been rated as underperforming by the state, compared with 19% of public schools.

Another Times article, on April 8, also criticized the charters. The paper accused charters of relying heavily on "young, inexperienced, uncredentialed teachers." The charge was based on a study of charter school educators, carried out by researchers at the University of California and Stanford University.

But that study, in turn, was criticized by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that favors charter schools. The group called the study's data flawed. "Knowing your subject is what matters," said the center's president, Jeanne Allen. She contended that the study ignored achievement gains that she said had been documented in charter schools in Michigan, California and other states.

In California, charters have been revoked at 20 of the 473 schools that have obtained them, the Los Angeles Times reported June 1. Additional regulations have been imposed, complicating the starting and operating of charter schools. A typical application now runs to more than 100 pages, compared with 20 pages a decade ago. This school year, 79 charters opened, giving the state a current total of 436.

Charters were defended in an April 30 article in the Boston Globe. Commenting on results in Massachusetts, the newspaper noted that public school teacher unions have recently renewed their attacks on charters. The article admitted that not every charter school has been a success. "But overall, the innovative academies have done well."

Supporting this affirmation were the results of statewide tests last year. According to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System results, two-thirds of charters bested district schools in the 2002 tests. In Boston, four of the top eight were charters.

Alberta's success

One of the charges against charter schools is that they are simply taking the best students from public schools. But the Boston Globe observed that in fact "charters do impressively well when it comes to enrolling both minority students and those who qualify for free or reduced lunch."

Positive results also have been documented in Canada, where only one province, Alberta, has charters. Students at the majority of Alberta's 10 charter schools outperform other students in the province on standardized exams, according to a study reported Feb. 17 by the National Post. That study has prompted calls to introduce these alternative schools in other parts of Canada.

In the first major report to look at charter schools in the province, based on test results from 1997-2001, charter school students scored above the provincial average in subjects such as English, science and social studies. Charter school students outperformed their peers on standard exams in 60% of the 180 comparisons that researchers made between eight of the charter schools and other provincial schools over a three-year period.

José da Costa, associate professor of education at the University of Alberta and one of the authors of the report, said these schools have been successful because of their specialized education and because the administrators put a great deal of effort into finding good teachers. As well, the parents are often extremely involved in their children's education, he said. Debates will continue over school reform, but vouchers and charters are so far giving solid results.


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